Musical quest from ouija board to rostrum

Jessica Duchen's musical mystery deserves great applause, says Madeleine Kingsley


Schumann’s lost concerto and a virtuoso femme fatale keep you gripped and guessing in Jessica Duchen's  Ghost Variations. (Unbound).  Set in 1930s London, this musical mystery by Jessica Duchen strikes a hot-blooded tune with grace notes from beyond the grave. The story centres on Jelly d’Aranyi, Hungarian, part-Jewish violinist and siren muse of Bartok, Ravel and Elgar.

Pressed to participate in a Ouija board sitting, Jelly receives a message purportedly from Robert Schumann’s spirit, entreating her to find his unknown violin concerto in D minor.

Jelly is shaken by and sceptical of her own eerie experience. But pressure mounts from her sister, the spirit-sensitive Adila and a titled family friend.

Jelly (pronounced Yeli) is no longer dazzling audiences as she once did, bowing the Tzigane rhapsody dedicated to her by Ravel. Two of her lovers are dead, a third, and a possible fourth only waiting in the wings. She is troubled by Europe’s tension. So the lure of playing detective and of reviving her glory days by performing the piece as a world first, sets Jelly off like a conductor’s nod.

There ensues an impassioned quest that will engage the ears of Chamberlain, Hitler and a scornfully disbelieving British press.

Ghost Variations reads like a bohemian thriller freshly imagined by Duchen, herself a pianist and musical scholar. It is, however a whole lot stranger than fiction: Duchen’s novel is inspired by the real-life events surrounding the exotic Jelly d’Aranyi, to whom Vaughan Williams and Holst also dedicated works.

Jelly did indeed spark the search for Schumann’s concerto, which has its own heady history. The D Minor piece was not exactly lost, but lay unpublished and unplayed for 80 years in the Prussian State library: Clara Schumann, the composer’s widow suppressed it on the grounds that it betrayed the composer’s incipient instability — he later died, delusional in an asylum. Jelly raises Schumann’s profile at the key moment when Goebbels, having banned the concerto by the baptised Jew Felix Mendelssohn, can resurrect echt German music as propaganda.

Duchen has all this remarkably obscure material at her fingertips, fleshing it out with a strong sense of social history and the fashionable refinements of this pre-war age. Pianist Myra Hess makes a cameo appearance in a cloud of cigarette smoke, evoking an arty feminism that ranks music above marriage. Norman Hartnell gowns, tango shoes, naturist beaches and the ménage a trois help to conjure this period of “psychical” enthusiasm for darkened rooms and the question: “Is anybody there?”

The response from Jelly’s own world, never mind the next, was that she was far from alone — just one of a temperamental trio claiming first rights to the Schumann. While she insisted the privilege was exclusively hers, Germany pushed forward their own Georg Kulenkampff to take first bow. The young Menuhin jockeyed to win the concerto for his Carnegie Hall comeback after a year off. And music publisher, Schotts, stirred the situation with multiple agendas. Duchen’s orchestration of such intrigue merits great applause.


Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer

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